Brave, dashing and touched by the spirit of adventure, Douglas McCurdy became the first person to fly an airplane out of sight of land
One hundred Januaries ago, at the outset of 1911, a young Canadian prepared to become the first person to fly a plane so far out over the uncertain sea that he would lose sight of land. He intended to pilot his biplane from Key West, Florida, 94 miles over the Straits of Florida to Havana. If the flight succeeded, it would also set a new world record for distance travelled over open water.
Douglas McCurdy was a lean, soft-spoken Cape Bretoner who had finished his undergraduate degree in engineering at U of T four years earlier. In 1909, he had become the first in the British Empire to lift a plane into the skies. He was the ninth man ever to fly a mechanized craft after Orville Wright had done it first at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.
After his first few shaky flights, and some crashes, McCurdy had solidified his piloting skills, and between 1909 and 1911 he participated in flying exhibitions all over the continent. Hoping to give the people of Cuba their first glimpse of mechanized flight, The Havana Post and the City of Havana together offered McCurdy the then princely sum of $8,000 (equivalent to more than $100,000 today) to be the first person to fly from Key West to Havana. “Being young and having the spirit of romance and adventure in my soul, to say nothing of the prize involved, I decided to attempt the flight,” he said.
He planned to make it all the way, but, just in case he didn’t, McCurdy paid a tinsmith to make hollow pontoons to attach to the wings. If the plane and pilot survived a sea landing, these flotation devices would buy him some precious time. Caught up in the collective enthusiasm for the nascent field of aviation, the U.S. navy offered to string six torpedo boats along the line of flight, each puffing out smoke to help McCurdy navigate, and prepared to steam to his aid should he crash into the water.
On the island at the southern tip of Florida, huge crowds assembled before dawn on the day of McCurdy’s scheduled departure in mid-January 1911. But a harsh northerly wind was blowing, whipping up the sea, and McCurdy decided to put off the flight. For each of the next six days, the same wind blew and each day the crowds became more restive. Some accused McCurdy of cowardice.
On the seventh day, the wind rested and McCurdy took off. McCurdy had decided to do a brief test flight in Key West to make sure the plane was running well, but, after liftoff, onlookers surged over the landing field. Going back became out of the question; he headed out to sea. “It was a brilliant morning,” he said, “and as I flew over the intense blue water, I felt a thrill of happiness and contentment known only to those who have delighted themselves by this form of travel.” He reached an altitude of 1,000 feet and a speed of 48 miles an hour. “Out on the water, I could see the smoke from the funnels of the nearest torpedo boat. Half a mile out, I saw a beautiful mirage before me over the water. It was magnificent – words fail me to describe it.”
As he passed over each successive torpedo boat, he could hear the sailors blowing their whistles, and then, after two hours, he spied the waterfront of Havana, the foreboding hulk of Morro Castle, the wharves “black with people,” the harbour festive with hundreds of small, brightly coloured sailboats. A cheer went up among the Cubans. “Then I heard a terrific noise behind me,” he recalled, “and one cylinder after another went, until I had no engine.” Within tantalizing sight of his destination, he had no choice but to hazard a water landing. A cry from the crowd as the black speck tumbled into the sea: “My God, he’s fallen!”
The water was thankfully smooth as he set down on the swell, and the pontoons did their job of keeping the plane afloat, but for how long? There were three 14-foot tiger sharks circling below. The U.S.S. Pauling took only four-and-a-half minutes to reach the downed craft. “I didn’t even get wet feet,” McCurdy said, but the plane was a dead loss.
He’d broken two records with his flight – it was the longest and the first out of sight of land – even if it hadn’t ended in triumph. McCurdy had taken the precaution of shipping another plane to Havana, so, without changing clothes, he gave the Cubans a flying exhibition – the first of several over the coming days. “Everywhere McCurdy went he was besieged by a mob . . . and by countless influential citizens begging to bestow some favour on him,” his biographer H. Gordon Green commented.
Eager to bask in the pilot’s glory, the newspaper and City of Havana promised to award McCurdy the prize money – after all, he’d reached Cuban territorial waters even if he hadn’t touched down on terra firma. At a gala ceremony at Havana’s ornate opera house, Cuba’s president José Gómez praised the young man lavishly and handed him an envelope with fancy red and green seals – with no cheque inside. (McCurdy later asked the American minister to Cuba how he could get his money, and the diplomat advised him that there was no easy political or legal way to do so, and to let it go.) “Still, my grandfather remembered this as a happy time,” McCurdy’s grandson Gerald Haddon says from the study of his house in Oakville, Ontario, surrounded with mementoes of his grandfather’s flights. “He set some new records on that Cuban flight – and, of course, he survived.”
McCurdy would become one of the few early barnstormers to outlive his youth – partly due to luck, but also because he was never foolhardy. His relatively conservative attitude toward risk and his insistence on knowing everything about the machines he piloted can be attributed to the influence of his mentor and his family’s longtime Cape Breton neighbour, Alexander Graham Bell.
The probably apocryphal story goes that Bell, while visiting the town of Baddeck in Cape Breton, looked through the window of the local newspaper office and saw the editor – who was McCurdy’s father, Arthur – trying to fix his telephone. Bell reportedly helped by removing a fly from the phone’s mechanism. However the friendship between the men actually started, it developed rapidly. After Bell’s return to Washington, Arthur helped the inventor find land for a stately summer house in Baddeck (next to Bras d’Or Lake) and assisted with the purchase. Arthur also became Bell’s private secretary, and the young Douglas – whose mother had died during the birth of his younger brother – spent much of his time on the Bell estate. Bell and his wife, Mabel – whose own sons had died in infancy – were taken with the boy and offered to adopt Douglas, but a redoubtable McCurdy aunt resisted.
Douglas and his brothers spent much of the summers on the lake, Huck-Finning it on a sailing raft they built. At many other times, Bell encouraged the boy’s interest in science, and later helped pay for his engineering studies at U of T. After graduating, Douglas and his friend Casey Baldwin (BASc 1906) came to Baddeck to assist Bell with his ongoing experiments with flight.
Bell had the young grads work on kites made of pyramidal cells. He wanted to make one that could carry a grown man into the air. In September 1907, after a bitterly cold day of working on the latest model, they sat, sipping hot coffee before Bell’s baronial fireplace, brainstorming. Mabel could see how much her husband, just turned 60, was enjoying the company of the young men and proposed that Bell and his protegés form an association with one goal: “to get into the air.” She had, she said, a nest egg from the sale of property that she was prepared to risk on the fledgling group.
Bell had come across two men with useful skills whom he proposed to add to the group. He persuaded U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt to loan out the leading aeronautical expert of the time, Artillery Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, a Californian with an easy, chivalrous temperament. The other, Glenn Curtiss, had no expertise in flight, but knew everything about small, lightweight engines from owning a motorcycle engine factory in upstate New York. He had no higher education, but was a tinkerer par excellence and had already shown a comfort with risk by breaking the world speed record on a motorbike.
At the Bell Museum’s archives in Baddeck, the inventor’s handwritten scrawls – bad penmanship seems to be the privilege of geniuses – document the progress of these four men. The papers also reveal Bell’s developing opinions of each member of his “brilliant coterie” – Baldwin he called “a thinker,” McCurdy “a doer.”
Bell gave each man the task of designing his own aircraft (to foster competition), but encouraged them all to pitch in with ideas and observations on each other’s experiments and shared with them all his own considered feedback. There seemed to be no jealousy among the quartet – they were too busy, the stakes were too high (an error could mean death or severe injury). Each week, at Bell’s insistence, they produced a newsletter to record their latest victories and setbacks – and the breathless pace of their innovations is documented in these missives.
Because there was more snow – needed to soften landings – in Curtiss’s hometown of Hammondsport, New York, the foursome relocated there in early 1908. They kept in constant touch with Bell, who remained in Baddeck. From kites, the group had moved to gliders, which they’d fly off the steepsided New York hills. With just wings attached to their arms, they lacked stability; they wobbled and often crashed. So they added a stabilizing tail to their gliders, after which 30- and 40-yard flights down the hillsides became common.
Then the men began to integrate lightweight engines into prototypes they’d shown to be airworthy. Selfridge’s plane was ready first, and was named the Red Wing for the scarlet silk (left over from one of Bell’s kites) stretched over its bamboo frame. In what was the first public airplane flight in North America – the Wright flights had been done in secrecy – the Red Wing lifted off (with Baldwin at the helm) from a frozen lake on a windless day, remaining four or five feet high for just over 100 yards. However, on a flight five days later, a gust of wind caught it, tilted it, and its right wing crashed into the ice, shattering it.
Undaunted, the associates came up with a flap at the end of each wing, which could be lifted or dropped to compensate for wind gusts. These balancing devices – which a French aviator named “ailerons” (meaning, “little wings”) – remain in use to this day. They were applied to Baldwin’s plane, the group’s second, the White Wing, which debuted in the spring of 1908. Although the plane proved more maneuverable in the wind, its lifespan was also short. On his maiden flight, McCurdy flew it at a height of 20 feet for almost 200 yards, but crashed it so severely that everyone was surprised he walked away. The plane was beyond repair.
Then, in the summer of 1908, came Curtiss’s plane, the June Bug. When watching it fly on Independence Day, one of Bell’s daughters expressed the sense of wonder common among mechanized flight’s first witnesses: “In spite of all that I had read and heard, and all the photographs I had seen, the actual sight of a man flying through the air was thrilling to a degree I can’t express. We all lost our heads and shouted, and I cried and everybody cheered and clapped.”
Putting his crash behind him, McCurdy got back in the cockpit and in this craft really learned how to fly, using the ailerons to become the first pilot ever to carve a figure eight in the sky.
In the fall, McCurdy returned from Hammondsport to Baddeck with his plane, the Silver Dart, with the idea of showing his friends and neighbours how it could fly – and, with an eye to history, of piloting the first flight in the British Empire. He took off in February of 1909 from the frozen surface of Bras d’Or Lake, and remained aloft for three-quarters of a mile, flying at about 40 miles an hour. He wanted to go right back up, but the always cautious Bell prevented him. “You can fly her again tomorrow if you like, but that’s all for today.” The British aviation authorities recognized McCurdy’s achievement by ultimately awarding him the first pilot’s licence in the Empire.
With this, all four men had completed the task Mabel Bell had set for them (and funded) – “to get into the air.” But the triumph was tinged with sadness. A few months earlier, the U.S. government had asked Selfridge to be an observer on a test flight piloted by Orville Wright near Washington. While the plane was up in the air, there was a crack like a pistol shot, a piece of the propeller blade fell off and the craft plummeted to earth. Wright survived, but his passenger Selfridge died. Mrs. Bell wrote the remaining three: “I can’t get over Tom’s being taken. He was so quiet, it seems strange how large the place is he has left vacant…. I am so sorry for you in this breaking of your beautiful association.” It meant the end of their group, and the close of a period of extraordinary invention and camaraderie.
After the breakup, the U of T chums Baldwin and McCurdy decided they would put their hard-earned aeronautical knowledge to use and set up an airplane factory in Baddeck. With Bell’s help, they sought to convince the Canadian government that planes could assist in national defence. A demonstration flight of the Silver Dart was scheduled at Camp Petawawa in Ontario in August of 1909. As cadets, officers and defence department officials watched, McCurdy made the plane float, turn and bob through the air satisfactorily, at 50 miles an hour and 50 feet above the earth. But when he brought the plane down, the wheels dug into the sandy runway and the plane tumbled over on its nose, splintering into pieces. No government orders for planes would be forthcoming.
Baldwin chose to help Bell on his experiments with hydrofoils, while McCurdy decided to join Curtiss on the then nascent barnstorming circuit – doing exhibition flights for money across the U.S. The young pilots on this circuit were the idols of their generation. Humans had always dreamed of soaring like the birds and now, as a result of careful science and engineering and devil-may-care bravery by the first test pilots, the impossible had become possible.
McCurdy joined what they called the “aeronautical circus,” and did shows (for $500 each) in almost every major city east of the Mississippi – in D.C., he circled the Washington Monument; in Brooklyn and Palm Beach, he became the first pilot to transmit and receive wireless signals on board; in Ontario, he won a race from Hamilton to Toronto against another member of the flying fraternity by cutting over the lake. Accidents, many fatal, abounded on the circuit and McCurdy had his share of close calls. In Chicago, his plane caught fire after coming into contact with live wires. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, his motor stopped 800 feet in the air, and wind capsized the plane, before he righted it and glided to a violent landing. McCurdy continued to believe the plane would play a role in future wars, and in exhibitions he would drop oranges, which he called bombs, on targets identified as battleships to prove his point. Some Japanese observers at a U.S. airshow took note, and wasted no time placing orders for planes on behalf of their military.
Even the onset of the First World War didn’t change the mind of the Canadian government, though, with Sam Hughes, the minister of militia and defence, blustering at McCurdy: “The aeroplane is an invention of the devil and will never play any part in such a serious business as the defence of the nation.” “I am sure,” the young man said quietly, “you will live to regret those words, General Hughes.”
During the First World War, McCurdy and Curtiss helped supply aircraft to the British, and McCurdy ran a flight-training school in Toronto, sending trainees to join the newborn British air force. (It was only in the 1920s that Canada belatedly inaugurated its own flying force.) Soon after the war, McCurdy met and married a Woodstock, Ontario, beauty, Margaret Ball – with whom he’d have a boy and a girl.
Throughout his life, McCurdy would continue to contribute to the growth of aeronautics in Canada – albeit in less dramatic ways than he did in his youth. In the 1920s and ’30s, he was president of the Curtiss-Reid aircraft company, which sold civilian aircraft around the world. In the Second World War, he oversaw Canadian aircraft production. From 1947 to 1952, McCurdy served as Nova Scotia’s lieutenant-governor and there are photos in his province’s archives of the still lean, distinguished-looking man squiring the impossibly young-looking Crown Princess Elizabeth about Halifax.
McCurdy never retired from flying, becoming, before his death in 1961 at age 74, the oldest licensed pilot in the world. In his later years, he sometimes spoke about his early flights – “he wouldn’t talk much about them, unless you asked,” Haddon says. When people did press him, the Cuban flight generally took pride of place among his recollections. In speeches and radio broadcasts, he tended to spend the longest time describing it, lingering fondly over the enthusiasm and duplicity of his hosts, remembering that stunning mirage over the water. Among the many firsts, the inventions and innovations he helped in, the successful takeoffs and flights, the crashes he’d somehow survived, there was this: McCurdy was the first man to have such confidence in himself and his plane to head so far out over the open sea that he lost sight of land.
Alec Scott (LLB 1994) splits his time between Toronto and San Francisco. He writes frequently about arts, travel and the law.